Striving to find a way to protect a strong emotional bond with someone you truly love can be a stressful situation for everyone involved in the situation. But when you find someone you truly care about, doing whatever it takes to maintain that bond, even if it goes against what’s morally acceptable, often becomes a top priority. That’s certainly the case in director Ira Sach’s new independent drama, “Love Is Strange,” which he co-scribed with his writing partner, Mauricio Zacharias. The independent drama, which is now playing in select theaters, emphasizes that no matter what struggles people are faced with in their lives, having a strong connection and love for each other can help them overcome those obstacles.
‘Love Is Strange’ follows Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), who have been together in a committed relationship for 39 years, and decide to take advantage of New York’s new marriage laws for gay couples. While the two joyful celebrate their wedding ceremony in lower Manhattan with their friends and family, their well put-together world soon starts to unravel. The Catholic school where George teaches music doesn’t approve of his new marriage to Ben and reluctantly fires him, despite the fact that his students and their families have previously supported his relationship.
With George’s loss of income, the couple is forced to sell their apartment and temporarily live apart with friends and family as they look for cheaper housing. George stays with two gay police officers, Ted and Roberto (Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez), who live in the same building as his old apartment with his husband. Meanwhile Ben, who makes a living as a painter, moves in with his nephew, Elliot (Darren Burrows), his wife, Kate (Marisa Tomei), and their temperamental teenage son, Joey (Charlie Tahan), in Brooklyn. While struggling with their separation, Ben and George are also forced to contend with the intergenerational tensions and unpredictable family dynamics of their new living arrangements.
Sachs generously took the time recently to sit down at the Crosby Hotel in New York City to talk about co-writing and directing ‘Love Is Strange.’ Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how he and his ‘Keep the Lights On’ co-scribe decided to reunite to write a film about how love grows between two people, and how people’s experiences influence their outlook and perspective on relationships. The director also spoke how the cast discussed their ideas about their characters’ backstories and history together before they began shooting, but he doesn’t like having rehearsals with the actors before filming begings, as he’s interested how the camera can capture the unexpected moment.
ShockYa (SY): You co-wrote the script for ‘Love Is Strange’ with Mauricio Zacharias. How did you and Mauricio come together to write the screenplay for the film, and what was the writing process like as you worked together?
Ira Sachs (IS): Well, Mauricio and I had co-written the script for ‘Keep the Lights On’ together, and that film came out in 2012. We were both then interested in making an optimistic love story about the possibility of love growing between two people. That was something that I wasn’t sure was possible when I was younger.
At the same time, we were also interested in telling a story from the perspective individuals have about love, given their age and experience. So you have three stories going in the film. There’s the story between the couple that’s played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, who are in the sunset years of their lives. Then you have Marisa Tomei and Darren Burrows, who are very much in the middle and asking the questions about middle life. Then you have this young boy, who’s played by this extraordinary young actor, Charlie Tahan, who is really discovering love for the first time. I wanted all of that to take place against each other in a crowded New York apartment.
SY: When you direct younger actors like Charlie, do you take a different approach to work with them, as opposed to working with the older cast members?
JS: Each actor needs something very specific. You have to be very attentive to the specifics of your actors. I wouldn’t say it’s because of age or experiences; I would say it’s because they’re different people.
Charlie came to the set so ready with his emotions, and he was so comfortable with himself, it was easy. I think he’s an extraordinary talent. It’s like we’re seeing the birth of a great actor, like Leo(nardo DiCaprio) in ‘(What’s Eating) Gilbert Grape.’ His performance is so real.
SY: The majority of the story is focused on the relationship between John and Alfred’s characters. Why was it important to you to also chronicle the relationships of Marisa, Darren and Charlie’s characters?
IS: Well, I think it’s a very personal film. When I first started writing the film, I went from living alone in my apartment to living with my husband, our two babies, the kids’ mom and occasionally visiting family members. To me, that contained so much of modern and classic life, because all these questions about generations were wrapped into this one situation of having us together in this one home.
So the questions of family and education, specifically of what do we teach, and learn from, other people, institutions and our parents, is really integrated into the movie. I think the film is really about me honoring my parents and their generation.
I also wanted to tell a good story, and for a good story, you need drama. So we had to separate these two guys.
SY: Besides co-writing the drama, you also directed ‘Love Is Strange.’ Was it always your intention to helm the film as you were penning the script?
IS: I’ve written all the films I have made. I think of myself as a storyteller first, and a filmmaker second. I use films to tell the stories I’m interested in. So I can’t really separate writing and directing.
SY: What was the casting process for each of the characters, since the drama is an ensemble piece?
IS: Well, I started off with Alfred, and he was the first person we cast soon after we finished the script. He hung in there for about nine months while the project came together. John and Alfred have a history together. They’ve never worked together in movies, but they’ve both lived in Los Angeles for most of their adult lives. They’ve also both been in marriages for 30 years.
So they have a great history together, and that was really important tot he history of Ben and George. They really created this special bond, and I think that’s the texture of the film.
SY: You didn’t have Alfred and John rehearse before you began shooting the film. Did you discuss their characters’ backstories with them?
IS: We would talk about backstories, in order to come to some agreement about their characters. So I spent a lot of time with the actors individually. I also think it’s very important to make decisions about when the characters met, and some of the stages about their relationships. Directing is about making a series of decisions about the characters. But at the same time, I think these actors are very deeply accessing their own marriages.
SY: Instead of having rehearsals, you met with the actors individually to discuss the script and their characters before you began filming. Why did you decide to forgo rehearsals with the cast?
IS: I’m interested in the unexpected moment, and how the camera can capture life as it passes. I try to give actors everything they need, including a very solid script with lines and a story that are laid out in a very rigorous way. The world they embody in the film is very fully drawn with production design.
Then I want something unexpected to happen. I try to create a controlled chaos and a very safe space, where they know they can take risks as actors. So to best do that, I don’t rehearse before I start shooting. The day of the shoot is really the rehearsal, so that we are discovering things together. They’re also discovering things without me. I’m like the psychoanalyst, just observing as we go.
SY: Speaking of the production design, what was the process of creating the apartments where Ben and George stayed as they looked for a new place to move into with each other?
IS: I work with Amy Williams, who’s an extraordinary production designer who really understands that I need a lot of detail in the vision. I think the costume designer, Arjun Bhasin, helped John particularly find his character through the quiet extravagance of Ben’s clothes, including the color of his wardrobe.
I also wanted to be very attentive to New York City, which is so much a romantic character in the film. I’ve been here 25 years, and I wanted to make my own New York film.
SY: Speaking of filming the movie here in New York, what was the experience of shooting on location, and incorporating the city into the story?
IS: Well, I’ve lived here for 25 years, and I’ve had a lot of experience and people to draw upon. So it’s the place I know best. What the film leaves people with is a certain intimacy of not only the characters, but also with the city. That’s something I admire in films like ‘Hannah and Her Sisters’ and ‘Husbands and Wives.’ Those movies tell New York stories from the inside, and I wanted to try my hand at that.
SY: ‘Love Is Strange’ played at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival here in New York this past April. What was the experience of bringing the movie back here to play in New York?
IS: It was wonderful; one of the best screenings we had for the movie was at the Tribeca Film Festival. I think there was an identification in the audience, and people really see themselves in the characters. It wasn’t just New Yorkers, but people from all over the world, who relate to the characters. If you get the details right, the film resonates.
SY: How have audiences who attended the festival screenings reacted to the film?
IS: I think people go into seeing the movie and think of it as one thing, and think of it in a different way after they watch it. I think part of my job is to create intimacy with the characters. You think it’s about other people, but ultimately it’s about yourself.
A woman actually came up to me after a screening in Los Angeles, and said “That boy is my grandson.” My mother and step-father said, “That’s us!” when they looked at Ben and George. I think people find themselves in the movie. I think that’s in part because there aren’t many films about older couples who are experiencing love over the age of 50. That’s something people tend to appreciate.
SY: Ben and George’s lives are completely changed after they get married, as George is fired from his job, and the couple is then forced to move out of their apartment. Did the characters ever question why they decided to get married now, after being together for almost 40 years, as their fortune changed after the ceremony?
IS: No, because I think these are men who find it to be important to be who they are. I think there’s a quiet forcefulness to that. What I love about Ben and George is that they’re both very humble, and I think that’s why they’re so appealing. That’s also certainly true with John and Alfred.
SY: Did the fact that John and Alfred knew each other before you began filming influenced their on-screen chemistry together?
IS: I couldn’t get them to stop talking when we were shooting the film. I’d continuously have to say, “Keep it down, kids.” There was this warmth and love between them that they could access, and was on-going.
SY: Besides co-writing and directing the drama, you also served as a producer on ‘Love Is Strange.’ Why did you also decide to produce the movie?
IS: As a director, your job is to see the thing through. As an independent director, I believe I’m my own boss, and I want to maintain that relationship to my work. Filmmakers like John Cassavetes and Orson Welles are my heroes, as they see the whole thing, including the economics as their role.
SY: Speaking of shooting the movie independently, did that add to the creativity of the story, and getting the movie made?
IS: Oh, sure. No one’s making movies about old gay guys, but me. There are also very few people who are making films about older men. This film was made by 26 individuals who decided that they believed in the story, and that it would find an audience. What’s been really nice is that they’ve been right.
SY: What do you hope audiences can take away from the movie?
IS: I hope they enjoy it and they laugh. I also hope they see something of themselves in the story, and maybe learn something about love, but not in a big way. It’s a film that attempts to make the ordinary extraordinary. That’s something I love in movies. I also love stories that are well told.
I’m currently making a new film, which is the third in the trilogy that I’m working on with Mauricio. It’s a kid’s film, and it’s about two boys who become best friends. For a variety of reasons, they take an oath of silence.
Written by: Karen Benardello